As I’m about to walk into Dyllon Ekanayake’s bright, sunny apartment, someone else saunters in ahead of me. That someone turns out to be Dyllon’s neighbour Jae See, who has come to try his famed coconut roti. “He told me he was making coconut roti today, so I kepoh-kepoh (like a busybody) popped by, because I come here often to eat,” says Jae, smiling.
In many ways, it is incredibly easy to see how Dyllon makes friends so effortlessly (he met Jae in the elevator and they have become fast friends since). Dyllon’s warmth is palpable almost as soon as you meet him – he exudes sincerity and generosity and is the consummate host. Dyllon also happens to be a phenomenal home cook, who makes the food of his Sri Lankan homeland nearly every single day, which is often the reason people come to visit him.
“I have this gang of local friends who love spicy food, so they always call and tell me, ‘We are coming the weekend, so please make something’, so I end up making Sri Lankan food every day now, because my group of friends is getting bigger,” he says, grinning.
Dyllon is a former radio deejay and TV personality from Sri Lanka (yes, he was a bit of a celebrity there) who met and married his Malaysian wife Bibi Rohani Abdullah eight years ago and has since made Malaysia his home. Although he never cooked nor was even a foodie as a child, all this changed when he moved to Malaysia.
“I started missing the (Sri Lankan) food, then I thought, ‘Why not start cooking and learn?’ So I used to call my mum and ask her to send me recipes. And often, I would video call her and ask, ‘How do I do this?’ And she would give me instructions. So that really helped me a lot and by 2012 or 2013, I just mastered the food,” he says.
Interestingly, Dyllon confesses that although Sri Lankan meals have a lot of vegetable options, he actually didn’t eat vegetables until he was in his mid-30s.
“I’m very picky when it comes to food, so I would only eat chicken, potatoes and dhal when I was younger. The turning point was when I was a little obese and my cholesterol level was high. I thought, ‘I need to change the way I eat, I need more nutrition and a lot of vegetables’,” he says.
These days, Dyllon works hard to incorporate more vegetables into his diet and also to tweak Sri Lankan recipes in order to make them healthier but still very, very authentic.
Like his recipe for deep-fried bitter gourd, which is crunchy with a zesty undertone and is strangely devoid of the vegetable’s much maligned bitter properties. Dyllon says there is a secret to getting rid of the bitterness.
“After you marinate it, you need to sun-dry it. This way, the moisture will evaporate and the bitterness will go too. This is a good substitute for crackers and whatever you feel like munching on,” he says.
Dyllon’s spicy devilled potato dish is a wholesome meal that he says is common in Sri Lankan cuisine. “Devilled potato is a simple recipe that is like a day-to-day dish for us, but it is also prepared for birthday parties and other special occasions,” he says.
Then there is the flavour-packed Sri Lankan chicken curry or kukul mas, which makes use of a homemade roasted curry powder.
“In Sri Lanka, there are two types of curry powders – one is unroasted curry powder, which is mainly used to create vegetable and fish dishes, and the other one is roasted curry powder, which is more intense and holds up well to meat.
“The difference between many chicken curries that I have tasted and the Sri Lankan chicken curry is the roasted curry powder – that opens up all the essence in the chicken,” he says.
Pol roti or coconut roti is another Sri Lankan staple – a lovely, doughy bread stuffed with chillies and onions that Dyllon makes exceptionally well. The roti is typically accompanied by a fiery katta sambol, or spicy sambal with Maldivian dried fish, which Dyllon says can easily be replaced with ikan bilis instead.
“Coconut roti is something that we eat mainly for breakfast. To make the roti, it is better to use grated coconut from young coconut. I also use coconut water instead of water to make the dough, as this gives the bread a nicer flavour,” he says.
Because he misses food from home so much, Dyllon often goes back to Sri Lanka a few times a year, and brings back spices and other ingredients essential to his cooking.
“No matter how much I cook, it can never beat the food I get there. And when I’m in Sri Lanka, I spend a lot of time watching my mother cook, and often just take videos of her cooking, so I can come back and watch them again!” he says, laughing.
Dyllon says cooking has now become deeply ingrained in his bones, as it is a passion that he says helps people understand who he is and where he comes from.
“I love Sri Lanka and I love Sri Lankan food. How am I to let people know who I am? With my food. And I think that’s the main reason I love cooking,” he says.
POL ROTI (SRI LANKAN COCONUT ROTI)
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups plain flour
1 tsp salt or as needed
1 cup grated coconut
1 to 2 onions, sliced
1 to 2 green chillies, finely sliced
1/2 cup coconut water (can be replaced with water)
oil, for cooking rotis
In a mixing bowl, sift flour and salt. Add the grated coconut, onions and finely sliced green chillies, incorporating the ingredients into the flour thoroughly. Season with more salt if necessary. Gradually add coconut water to form a sticky dough. Continue kneading and form a soft dough that leaves the sides of the bowl. This should take less than 5 minutes.
Apply oil to your hands and oil the dough. Separate the dough into balls. On a lightly oiled surface, shape the dough into circles and form roti that are not too thin (or else they will break).
Lightly oil a skillet over medium heat. Place roti on the pan and cook, 2-3 minutes on each side. Repeat with all the roti. Serve hot with katta sambol.
KATTA SAMBOL (SRI LANKAN SPICY SAMBAL)
Serves 2 to 4
a handful of ikan bilis that has been
washed, dried and pan-roasted till golden brown
2 green chillies
salt to taste
lime juice to taste
3/4 tsp chilli powder
Add all the ingredients, except lime juice and chilli powder, to a grinder and grind until smooth. Add lime juice and chilli powder, and stir to combine. Serve with pol roti.
SRI LANKAN DEVILLED POTATOES
4 large potatoes
2 tbsp oil
1 large onion, sliced into rings
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
3 green chillies, sliced or whole
1/2 tsp chilli powder
8 curry leaves
salt to taste
Place potatoes in a pot filled with water and bring to the boil. Cook until just starting to become tender, then peel and quarter potatoes.
Heat oil in a large frying pan and add onions. Stir-fry over medium heat until they turn translucent. Add mustard seeds, turmeric powder, green chillies, chilli powder, fresh curry leaves and a sprinkle of salt. Add cooked potatoes and stir through till evenly coated. Fry for a few more minutes until the surface of the potatoes are golden brown. Remove from the heat and serve hot.
KUKUL MAS (SRI LANKAN CHICKEN CURRY)
For the roasted curry powder
200g coriander seeds
100g cumin seeds
50g fennel seeds
4 cinnamon sticks
1 pandan leaf
20 fresh curry leaves
For the curry
2 to 3 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 red onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch ginger, minced
2 1/2 tbsp roasted Sri Lankan curry powder
1 tsp chilli powder (less if you like it less spicy)
1 tsp black pepper
10 curry leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
3 green chillies, sliced
1/2 tsp salt plus more to taste
1 tomato, cubed
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp vinegar
To make the roasted curry powder
Wash and rinse the ingredients. Strain and sun-dry them for one whole day.
Set a frying pan over low heat, and dry-roast the coriander, cumin and fennel separately until golden brown. Shake the pan to avoid burning, Set aside in a bowl.
In the same pan, dry-roast the cinnamon sticks for about a minute. Add the pandan leaf and roast for about 40 seconds, and then add the curry leaves and roast together for another 40 seconds until beginning to colour. Add to the other roasted ingredients in the bowl.
Put all the ingredients in a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Store in an air-tight container and keep for a maximum of 30 days.
To cook curry
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add onions, garlic and ginger and cook until softened. Add curry powder, chilli powder, black pepper, curry leaves and cinnamon and mix to combine. Cook for a few minutes until aromatic.
Add the chicken, green chilli, salt and tomato and mix to coat. Cook for 10 minutes with the lid off, on medium high heat. Stir frequently to make sure the chicken or the spices don’t burn.
Add coconut milk, water and vinegar and bring the curry to a boil. Lower the heat and let simmer with the lid closed, 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The chicken should be completely cooked at this point. Remove from the heat and serve hot with rice.
KARAVILA SAMBOL (DEEP-FRIED BITTER GOURD)
Serves 4 to 6
250g bitter gourd, sliced thinly
salt to taste
½ a lime, juiced
¼ tsp turmeric powder
oil, for deep frying
1 onion, sliced
4 green chillies, chopped
salt to taste
1 tbsp black pepper powder
lime juice to taste
Soak the bitter gourd in a bowl of water with salt, lime juice and turmeric, 15-20 minutes. Squeeze the water out of the bitter gourd and leave to sun-dry for 2 hours or until totally dry.
In a frying pan, heat enough oil for deep-frying and deep-fry bitter gourd till crisp. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine onion, green chillies and salt to taste. Add bitter gourd and mix well with your hands. Sprinkle pepper powder and mix again until evenly coated. Serve on its own as a snack or with rice.